Cultivating Pro-Social Resilience Online in an Age of Polarisation

This Blog post is the final—the first is HERE, the second HERE, and the third HERE—in a four-part series of article summaries from the EU H2020-funded BRaVE project’s  First Monday Special Issue exploring societal resilience to online polarisation and extremism. Read the full article HERE [Ed.].

 By Vivian Gerrand

While algorithmic design is one critical component of supporting prosocial resilience to online polarisation, equally important is the kind of content delivered by such design. As a contributor to the latest BRaVE Special edition of First Monday, my article explores how alternative narratives online may be used to enhance resilience to societal polarisation and violent extremism.

Resilience is commonly understood in adaptive terms – it arises in response to adversity or stress. Its mobilisation within neoliberalism has led to its disparagement for burdening individuals with ‘being resilient’ come what may regardless of entrenched structural inequalities. In the BRaVE project, we drew on a psychosocial framework of resilience which sees it as intersectional and comprised of resources at multiple scales. This means that what might enable resilience in one context could impede it in another.

When resilience is considered as a response to violent extremism, we should remember that insofar as needs are met through joining terrorist groups, terrorists themselves may be resilient, albeit in anti-social ways. For this reason, my focus is on pro-social resilience: that is, resilience that supports the public good.

Terrorism relies on the construction of an in-group and out-group. As Berger writes, ‘movements become extreme when the in-group’s demand for legitimacy […] can only be satisfied at the expense of an out-group’. Someone must always be the enemy and pose an existential threat that warrants their destruction. Akin to the Christchurch terrorist, the recent white supremacist Buffalo attacker believed he was acting to ‘protect and serve [his] community’, having subscribed to the racist ‘Great Replacement’ narrative which maintains that the ‘white race’ is at risk of being replaced by non-white people.

The stories we tell matter both in supporting and resisting terrorism. Stories can divide communities, as well as creating them. Unlike counter-narratives which may reinforce polarisation and take-down initiatives which can inadvertently grow unregulated alt-tech and dark Web platforms, alternative narratives rearrange the status quo. They agonise instead of antagonising. They may inspire conflict but not the kind of conflict that results in social harms. Terrorist narratives promote antagonistic or bad conflict. They encourage viewing others as enemies to be eradicated, instead of opponents with whom to have an argument or a political contest of ideas.

Alternative narratives open up new perspectives that produce generative tensions. They promote complex cultural identity by providing resources for bonding, bridging and linking capital while blurring black and white friend/enemy binaries, encouraging us to look deeper and appreciate ambiguity so that difference is no longer a threat. In this sense, they are central to democracy.

The three BRaVE award-winning alternative narrative interventions that I explore in my article exemplify this.

First, the activities of EU-funded Build Solid Ground Living Libraries, including ‘Africa Days at school [online]’, are an example of pro-social use of online communications. Inspired by the Danish ‘Stop the Violence’ NGO’s use of The Human Library, designed to lend people instead of books, Living Libraries were enacted via Zoom during COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, in both Slovak and English. They gave 500 young secondary-school students living in lockdown a chance to participate in conversations with people they were not used to talking to. The initiative features sites of transcultural storytelling with actors as ‘living books’, readers, a librarian, and a support team. The actors are people from African countries — Benin, Ethiopia, Guinea and Kenya — now living in Slovakia.

Likewise, the alternative narrativesof Jamal al-Khatib — My Path!, developed by the Turn Association civil society organisation, a youth-led Austrian online street work project that responds to the online social influences of Islamist violent extremist groups. Akin to campaigns such as CAIR Chicago’s #MyJihad, which contest propaganda through reclaiming the true meaning of jihad, this social media intervention tackles exclusivist jihadi subcultures in Vienna by appropriating jihadi audiovisual cultures in order to subvert IS recruitment. The project adopted narrative biography work, to acknowledge legitimate grievances without recourse to exclusivism. This approach encouraged young people to question extremist narratives and to address the issues they face through pro-social means.

Initiated by a young man who had been in prison for involvement in jihadist activities and wished to write about his experience, the project demonstrates the potential for rehabilitating militant offenders through a real-life example of someone who was radicalised at a young age but was able to redirect his efforts. The initial project team, comprising social workers and Islamic Studies experts, reached out to young people at risk of being exposed to terrorist content and provided ongoing social supports offline.

Finally, in response to online gaming cultures that have facilitated recruitment into violent extremist and hate-based ideologies, targeted gamification interventions are critical, including grassroots initiatives that educate young people about how recruitment works on social media platforms. Loulu is one such intervention. Winner of the BRaVE Innovation AwardLoulu is a digital, interactive and protected gaming space that makes the manipulation structures of the far-right tangible. Designed by the German organisation, the online game is designed to educate about recruitment pathways into far-right violent extremism via familiarity with an influencer called Loulu, whose profile players can follow. Set in a fictional city in Germany, Loulu takes an interactive, ludic format, presenting a scenario that is true to life. Sophisticated messaging ensures that Loulu’s target audience of young Internet users will readily gravitate towards its relatable content. Through occupying the fictionalised spaces of the far right, players of Loulu develop critical thinking skills and gain bonding, bridging and linking capital which bolster their resilience to the recruitment efforts of violent extremist groups online.

In an environment that is conducive to polarisation, these three BRaVE award-winning interventions highlight how online communications can be mobilised to cultivate pro-social resilience. Build Solid Ground, Jamal al-Khatib and Loulu involve young people through a series of distinct participatory approaches. In the first two interventions, this approach enabled them to reflect on their lives, compare their experiences with those of sociocultural others and interact meaningfully with them. These processes allowed for the cultivation of a sense of purpose, supporting the development of a complex cultural identity and an appreciation of the power of non-violent conflict. Through its gamification strategy, Loulu similarly succeeds in supporting young people as they become able to identify the tactics of contemporary far-right recruiters, gain critical insight into how social capital can be mobilised to polarise people, and develop agency while learning.

Dr. Vivian Gerrand is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies in the Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University, Australia. Vivian was a chief investigator on the Horizon 2020 BRaVE (Building Resilience against Violent Extremism and Polarization) project from 2019–2021 and served as Coordinator of the AVERT (Addressing Violent Extremism and Radicalization to Terrorism) Network from 2018–2021.

The BRaVE project received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement number 822189. Image credit: Pexels.

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